Dan Walters

Dan Walters: New-age phobias emerging

Senators Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, left, and Richard Pan, D-Sacramento shake hands after SB277 was approved 25-10 at the state Capitol on Thursday, May 15, 2015 in Sacramento.
Senators Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, left, and Richard Pan, D-Sacramento shake hands after SB277 was approved 25-10 at the state Capitol on Thursday, May 15, 2015 in Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

A woman holding a hand-lettered sign urging the Legislature to repeal Senate Bill 277 stood by the entrance to the Capitol’s garage Thursday morning.

It was a forlorn echo of an issue that generated the highest level of emotional energy seen in the Capitol in decades – whether public and private school students, with few exceptions, should be vaccinated against infectious diseases.

Hundreds of “anti-vaxxers,” as they were dubbed, repeatedly flooded the Capitol to denounce SB 277 as an infringement on parental rights that would expose children to dangerous side effects of vaccines.

The bill was eventually passed and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, subject only to a pending referendum to repeal it that probably won’t succeed.

The outpouring on SB 277 was another demonstration of what might be called the politics of phobias.

Samuel Johnson’s 18th century aphorism, “The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully,” has a political corollary – fear is a powerful political motivator.

If one looks back on the past several decades of California politics, fears – both real and contrived – have loomed large, but they’ve also undergone a marked metamorphosis.

The period’s early years were marked by fears from the conservative side of the political spectrum, on such issues as crime, taxes, drugs, homosexuality and illegal immigration.

With California’s slightly rightward tilt at the time, those fears manifested themselves in policy decrees by politicians and voters. Just a few examples: Proposition 13’s tax limits, sharp increases in criminal penalties (accompanied by a fast rise in the prison population), and Proposition 187, the 1994 measure aimed at services to illegal immigrants.

During his first governorship, Brown tried to ride the anti-tax wave to the White House, but failed, and lost his bid for the U.S. Senate on the crime issue in 1982, as death penalty advocate George Deukmejian was winning the governorship.

Then-Gov. Pete Wilson, facing a rough re-election battle in 1994, rode both Proposition 187 and the death penalty to a landslide re-election over Brown’s sister, Kathleen.

The last gasp of that gestalt was Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure to place a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. But California’s overall political orientation had begun to shift long before then, and as old phobias faded, a new array of politically powerful fears emerged.

New-age phobias such as fear of vaccinations, fear of genetically altered foods, fear of fracking, fear of tobacco and, most potently, fear of climate change have arisen as successors to those earlier motivators. And politicians, forever looking for political waves to surf, have not hesitated to exploit them as energetically as their predecessors did.

Most notably, Brown, in his second gubernatorial incarnation, has become a climate change Cassandra, hopping around the globe (in carbon-emitting airliners) with dystopian warnings about greenhouse gases.

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